The deCordova's Amazing Art and Poetry Program

by Jacquelyn Malone

Installation view, Lesley Dill, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Photograph by Clements Photography and Design, Boston.

Installation view, Lesley Dill, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Photograph by Clements Photography and Design, Boston.

More and more arts organizations are integrating poetry into their worlds these days, but few with the spectacular and meaningful effect of the program sponsored by the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. The current paired exhibition, which includes both Ian Hamilton Finlay and Lesley Dill, relies heavily on phrases from poems ranging from Dickinson and Tom Sleigh, and on the challenge of renewing language degraded by modern consumerism and easy acceptance of violence we see daily in the media.

The exhibit is the brainchild of Jennifer Gross, the Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs and the Chief Curator for the museum. Gross is new to the deCordova but not to New England. She has been curator at the Yale University Art Gallery and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum before assuming her current position last year. This exhibit unites two of her long-standing loves: art and poetry.

Jennifer Gross and deCordova Board President Gerry Frank

Jennifer Gross and deCordova Board President Gerry Frank

As the art exhibits came together, it seemed only natural to bring in contemporary poets. One event has already occurred. David Rivard  read his poetry in the museum park in July to a rapt audience that enjoyed his poems as they were read to the music of the park’s birds--an unexpected but delightful juncture of word and music. That reading was a clear success according to Gross.

Rivard, who was recommended by several area poets, was unknown to Gross before the reading – unlike the other two poets who will read this fall. Cole Swensen, whose reading is on September 17  at 7pm, worked on a project at Yale with Gross in conjunction with the Beinecke Library.  Gross met Charles Simic during her period at the Gardner Museum.  His poems about World War II made him appropriate for Finlay's work, which often is mindful of the atrocities of that war. The Swensen reading and the Simic reading will be held inside, but because of the limited space the Simic reading will require tickets and registration -- $15 for non-members of the museum and $10 for members. Get your tickets now before they sell out!

Poetry and the visual artists

Detail from Installation view, Ian Hamilton Finlay: Arcadian Revolutionary and Avant-Gardener, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Photograph by Clements Photography and Design, Boston.

Detail from Installation view, Ian Hamilton Finlay: Arcadian Revolutionary and Avant-Gardener, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Photograph by Clements Photography and Design, Boston.

Both artists in the museum exhibition are interested in language, but both have very different takes on concrete poetry and the incorporation of words. The Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, who died in 2006, is regarded as one of the most influential British artists of the twentieth century for his work as sculptor, poet, and landscape designer. He began his career writing short stories while he was working as a shepherd shortly after World War II.

He rose to prominence in 1961 when he created one of Britain’s foremost experimental literary presses, Wild Hawthorne. The broadsides, magazines, booklets, folders and cards in the exhibit are often collaborations with other artists – painters, typographers, calligraphers. He also titled his work with language that created a dissonance between the object depicted and the words that describe it. Panzer Leader is a wonderful example. The sculpture of an innocent tortoise is embossed with a German word that became infamous during World War II. As the museum brochure points out: “Although Panzer Leader appears to be an unassuming, tank-like reptile, Finlay’s application of language quickly renders it a more sinister evocation of the thunderous crush of German tanks during World War II.”

Dill’s use of poetry is often contained in the words themselves as she stitches them into paper or sculpts them in metal. She often uses the words of Emily Dickinson, Franz Kafka and, more recently, Tom Sleigh. In fact Gross points out that Dill has a contract with Sleigh that allows her to move his lines around as she creates her artwork. Sleigh and Dill spoke together about their collaboration in May at the beginning of the exhibition. The museum brochure explains that Dill finds inspiration in Sleigh’s language, which counterbalances Dickinson’s ecstasy and faith, “enabling," as the museum brochure says, " a full range of emotional and psychological expression for Dill’s images.”

Make sure you not only hear the readings of Swensen and Simic but that you see the art work that inspired the reading series!